It is not yet k
nown what causes paedophilia. Despite well over a century of research, it is still unclear whether persistent sexual attraction to prepubescent children is a condition brought on by genetics, social development or some combination thereof. What we do know for certain is that nobody chooses this malady for themselves. As with any disorder, one either has it or doesn’t. It can’t be turned on or off like a switch.
What may be rather more variable is the tendency of paedophiles to act on their desires. We should have no doubt that such variation exists: the gap between impulse and action, after all, is an essential part of the human experience. It is within this gap that compassion, shame, fear and other motivating and inhibiting factors operate. Just as most of us do not go around smashing shop windows and making off with consumer goods, it is not necessarily the case that we will react to frustrating situations by lashing out physically. Neither, despite the powerful nature of the sexual urge, do we necessarily cheat on our partners because we are attracted to somebody else. If sexual desire can be so easily repressed, it surely goes without saying that there must be – given the significant deterrents at work – a statistically significant subset of paedophiles who have never sexually abused children.
For now, however, the specific numbers remain unknown. It shouldn’t be surprising that this is the case; after all, the current climate is hardly conducive to such people seeking treatment or confiding in family or friends. Given the profound shame that would tend to be associated with these feelings, one can only guess at the rates of clinical depression and suicide.
It is, after all, difficult to think of a more despised figure in our society than the paedophile; even violent criminals seem to be granted moral superiority. Perhaps there would be a little less vitriol if the mainstream media made more effort to separate the medical condition from the actual crime of child
abuse; as it is, the word ‘paedophilia’ is more or less used interchangeably. This is despite the fact that about half of these crimes are committed by non-paedophiles (that is, adults who are not primarily sexually attracted to children). The term is also, to confuse matters more, oftentimes erroneously used to describe sex with or attraction to teenage minors.
The terminology may leave a bit to be desired, but public outrage is a long way from unjustified. Child sexual abuse can have severe, long-lasting consequences for its victims, not limited to mental health issues, low self-esteem, sexual problems and, in some cases, future continuation of the cycle. Given the respective power roles involved, it is right that these acts are seen as a serious betrayal of trust and prosecuted accordingly.
Some of the discourse on the matter, however, abandons rationality altogether. Tabloids shamelessly fuel hysteria and vigilantism to the extent that sheer brutality seems to become the only acceptable way of engaging with the topic. Usually, our criminal justice system serves as a sensible counterpoint to media sensationalism; on this particular issue, however, it lets us down.
In modern justice systems, sentencing usually entails rehabilitation. When it comes to paedophilia, however, the lines are blurred. The state sex offender registers hamper freedom of movement and severely decrease employment opportunities. In Western Australia, a government website offers visitors access to images and whereabouts of released offenders. In parts of the United States, on the other hand, they’re simply not released at all.
Child pornography law is another area in which punishment almost seems targeted at the illness itself. It is, of course, vital that the international child pornography trade be policed and producers be brought to justice, but it nonetheless seems strange that passive viewing warrants custodial sentences – a paradigm not applied to, say, footage of terrorists beheading journalists. Indeed, as cases involving literary works and cartoon images show, successful prosecution doesn’t even require actual abuse to have occurred.
Some will argue that, given child pornography access suggests existence of the condition, locking these people up may prevent future child abuse. There may well be truth to this, but let us not forget that paedophilia is far from the only disorder that correlates with harmful behaviour. It is hardly a crime to be diagnosed with a behavioural disorder; instead, it is generally considered the domain of the healthcare sector. Why should that not be the best place to deal with this issue?
Indeed, given the high cost of sexual abuse, one would think that our society would already be prioritising early intervention and counselling aimed at helping non-offending paedophiles manage their condition. At the moment, however, this couldn’t be further from the case. Rather than offering public support to the very few organisations that provide such services, conservative state governments seem intent on using them as cheap political fodder – an approach exemplified by the Western Australian Liberal Party’s decision to cut funding to SafeCare in 2008.
Not only does this kind of reactionary decision making cast at-risk individuals adrift, it robs us of the opportunity to increase our understanding of the condition. There is still so much that we don’t know about paedophilia. As researchers in the field are quick to point out, much of the available data is sourced from convicted abusers – it is unsurprising, then, that observed traits tend to mirror those of typical criminal populations. Although it is unlikely that a cure will be discovered, effective treatment of any kind will require a wider data sample. Until more non-offending paedophiles are given the opportunity to safely seek out long-term counselling programs, that will be an impossibility.
Paedophilia is, of course, a profoundly difficult and uncomfortable topic. Nevertheless, it is crucial we accept that open, frank discussion is essential to learning how best to treat this condition as well as figuring out how to prevent as much child abuse as possible. Clearly, we have a long way to go.